Mark Menzies is MP for Fylde.
Before the 2012 London Olympics, I introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill, enabling shops to open for longer hours on Sundays during special events. And I was delighted when the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to implement emergency legislation to this effect for August and September 2012. The result was an increase of 3.2 per cent in retail, compared to 1.6 per cent the following month when the restrictions were back in place.
The economic case for extending this legislation permanently is undeniable. Internet sales now account for 11.5 per cent of all retail sales compared to just 2.8 per cent a decade ago. With this trend set to continue and high street stores struggling to compete, it is wholly counterproductive to force shops to close early on the second biggest shopping day of the week. This only succeeds to drive shoppers from the high street into the arms of the ever available online retailer.
Those whose main argument in favour of Sunday trading restrictions is that they give shop workers much needed respite, should note that many retail workers would welcome the chance to earn more money, at a busier time of the week, often on a greater hourly rate. Having worked in retail for over fifteen years before I was elected to serve as a Member of Parliament, I know the frustrations of staff on this matter well. It should be noted that nothing in the Government’s original proposals suggests that workers’ statutory right to opt out of working on a Sunday under the Employment Rights Act 1996 will be affected. Lifting Sunday trading restrictions would therefore provide workers with the best of both worlds; those who don’t want to work on Sundays don’t have to, while those who do want to work can.
Proponents of Sunday trading restrictions are also on the wrong side of the social argument. Shopping is, after all, a sociable pursuit. Millions of people treat it as such every weekend across the UK; browsing their local shops, popping into cafés, pubs and restaurants for refreshment in between, generally with their friends and/or family for company. Denying access to shopping – the most readily available leisure activity for the majority of people – on one of the only two days of the week that most working people have free, does a disservice to the very people the Conservative Party works hardest to support.
Current restrictions dictate that shops over 280 sq m can only trade for six hours on a Sunday. This has led to, amongst other things, the bizarre situation in which large shops open for a half hour on Sunday morning during which potential customers may browse products but not buy them.
In Scotland such folly is unnecessary, as large shops and small ones may open all hours. There, contrary to the scaremongering of opponents to Sunday trading, the fabric of society has not disintegrated; people have not stopped going to church in greater numbers than in England, and there is no evidence that the family unit has been intrinsically harmed. That is why it was particularly absurd that the SNP stood in the way of denying local authorities in England the power to set Sunday trading hours at the end of last year – a power that they have long enjoyed north of the border.
In truth, unrestricted Sunday trading exists in much of the English retail sector as well. Supermarkets have invested billions in shops smaller than 280 sq m, the products in which are invariably more expensive than identical items that are found in their larger stores. These have already done a thorough job of taking business off small independent grocery shops. Any small independent shops that have survived the past decade can only have done so through a combination of versatility and popularity, qualities that the opening of larger stores for a few extra hours every Sunday will have no effect upon.
As we allow our high streets to host generic shopping experiences made up of banks, coffee shops, charity shops, takeaways and supermarkets, people are staying in and shopping online more. Anything that can help boost footfall through town centres at weekends must surely be a welcome endeavour. We rail against huge conglomerates for paying little tax in the UK, yet we inadvertently push more revenue their way and away from the hands of UK based businesses. Large, long-established, independent department stores must curtail their trading on a Sunday while their huge internationally based competitors can trade online with impunity. In fact, some of these websites – selling far more stock than a 280 sq m shop could ever hope to sell – will even deliver your purchases to your door on Sundays!
We cannot complain about the decline in fortunes of the UK high street, yet refuse to give councils the powers to arrest this decline and to boost the retail sector in their area. In the consultation document on this issue, the Government outlined its view that extending Sunday trading hours across England and Wales could potentially bring significant economic benefits equivalent to an estimated £1.4 billion per year. It would be churlish to stand in the way of making such a simple change to English law, when it will have such a positive effect on our economy.
I am delighted that the Government has decided to persevere with this policy through its inclusion in the Enterprise Bill. It is worth re-emphasising that its proposal is to devolve the power to lift Sunday trading restrictions to local government, which will exercise that power in response to the views and needs of local residents and businesses. This is wholly consistent with the Conservative Party’s aim to decentralise, reduce the power of the state and give local people more control over their local communities. It is important to remember this when the time finally comes to debate the Government’s proposals and that our commitment to localism was a large reason why we were elected in May last year.